Plain Language Summaries

Do students understand tasks as we mean them? The understanding of the demands of multiple texts on a topic

Probably every teacher has had the experience that not all students understand the assignments as they were intended. Especially when it comes to more complex tasks, where different texts on a topic have to be read and understood in relation to each other, this can become a challenge.

In this study, we investigated whether students are aware of the strategies they are expected to use to comprehend multiple texts on a topic in such tasks and whether they then actually implement them when reading the texts. In brief: A majority if by no means all of the students recognize that specific strategies are also needed when reading multiple texts. However, this is not reflected in the use of these strategies or in better performance. However, there are improvements across multiple tasks.

Table with different material ©PxHere
Aims and questions of the study

The basic idea of this study is that a task must also be understood. Not everyone grasps what is required in a task in the same way. Thus, just as there is a textual understanding, there is also a task understanding. It stands to reason that different students and pupils perceive the requirements of a task differently and that this ultimately affects how a task is processed.

In this study, this was examined on the basis of a currently very relevant skill, namely comprehension of multiple documents. If, for example, you want to inform yourself about topics on the Internet or prepare for a paper or homework as a student, you will inevitably come across several texts on the same topic. Then it is important not only to understand the texts individually, but also to put them in relation to each other.

The question in this study was whether students are aware of this requirement. In addition to the question of whether they can name this requirement, it was also investigated whether this is also reflected in how students proceed when reading multiple texts and how well they ultimately understand the texts in relation to each other.

Laptop with book ©pixabay

A total of 310 students participated in this study. A computer-based test of comprehension of multiple documents was administered, in which participants completed three parts each with topics from different domains. Each part contained several texts that examined the topic from different perspectives and for which a reading task was given (e.g., read as if a presentation had to be given). In each part, questions were asked to assess how well the texts were understood, which could only be solved correctly if the information from several texts was combined. Furthermore, students' behavior was recorded based on their movements in the test environment (e.g., clicks) to capture strategies used to comprehend multiple texts (e.g., matching information between texts). Furthermore, after each part, students were asked to describe the requirements for the reading task. These responses were analyzed to determine what type of requirements they mentioned, specifically whether they mentioned specific requirements of multiple document comprehension.


It turned out that the students understood the requirements of the tasks correctly in the majority of cases (in approx. 60% of the three test parts that all participants worked on). Thus, they knew that it was necessary to use strategies for understanding several texts and not only those needed for understanding individual texts. However, knowing this did not necessarily lead to using these strategies, nor did it lead to better performance on the test. However, students learned over time what was required of them; that is, in the later parts of the test, strategies for understanding multiple texts were more often identified as task requirements and were used more. It was also interesting to note that students performed better on the test when they perceived strategies for deeper comprehension of individual texts as task demands.

Relevance of the results

This study shows that special attention should be paid in educational institutions to ensure that students and pupils correctly grasp tasks and then actually translate the requirements into appropriate behavior. In particular, individuals who have difficulty reading multiple texts could benefit from an explicit discussion of task requirements and helpful strategies.

In today's world, this is of great importance. On the Internet, one is usually confronted with numerous, often contradictory pieces of information on a topic. The ability to filter out the right information and combine it into a meaningful whole should therefore be encouraged in students and pupils.

The scientific publication

Schoor, C., Rouet, J.-F., Artelt, C., Mahlow, N., Hahnel, C., Kroehne, U., & Goldhammer, F. (2021). Readers' perceived task demands and their relation to multiple document comprehension strategies and outcome. Learning and Individual Differences, 88, 102018.

The project

The study was conducted within the project MultiTex, which was funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research.